“Management of a wilderness”, to those familiar with true wilderness, is an oxymoron. Wilderness should need no management by humankind – it should be subject to the natural processes of nature. At least that is what is attempted to the greatest degree possible in true wilderness areas (such as those designated by the miscellaneous US Government land management agencies, or even state agencies). Wilderness areas have no roads for access, no attempts are made to extinguish forest or grass fires, and no activities such as grazing of cattle are allowed.
But the Sutton Wilderness isn’t a formal Wilderness Area. Not that it couldn’t be – there are no formal roads in the Sutton, no structures have been erected, and no cattle are grazing. There have been these activities in the past – but that doesn’t disqualify it from being called a wilderness – if it were desired to be so-called.
There is a spectrum of parks associated with most cities. There are intensively used (and similarly maintained) parks such as playing fields or golf courses. Regular mowing of lawns, fertilizer in the growing season, pre-emergent weed control in the early spring – all for the sake of that “perfect lawn”. Then there are open spaces that may have trails through them, but are otherwise unmanaged. And there are places like the Sutton Wilderness, that have trails and are somewhat managed. This management may not be obvious to the casual visitor, but it is actually significant. Eastern Red cedar has been dug up and removed periodically – these were most recently burned in fire pits onsite. Then, every year the grass is cut back by tractors over large swaths of the existing grassland. This may take only a few days, so it may not be apparent to most visitors. And every few years the trails are “reconditioned, either with the addition of wood chips or gravel. The main trails are also widened with tractors to keep them open for visitors. All of these management activities are not natural events – though some of them attempt to mimic natural processes.
The Sutton Wilderness depends on widespread public appreciation and good behavior for its day-to-day well-being. Flagrant violations of accepted norms are not common, but more effective signs would help visitors to appreciate the reasons for the regulations. Bicycles (actually not allowed in the wilderness rules) put high pressure on soft ground after rains and create trail erosion. Many bicycle riders cannot see small animals (snakes, lizards etc) in time to avoid running over them. The Sutton Wilderness is really not suitable for mountain biking because of the many walkers and dogs. As noted in the next section, even dog walking and jogging can have adverse impacts on the wilderness ambience.
Problems associated with “the commons”
The term “commons” usually refers to areas that are shared by a community and not under the control of any one person or group. The term became well-known in environmental circles after the publication of an article by Garrett Hardin in Science in 1968. A slightly more readable version (clearer font and formatting) of this article is here. And, a short essay (by Mike Douglas) on the importance of understanding the concept of the commons and its relevance to our everyday life is here.
The Sutton Wilderness is not an isolated park – it is bordered by Norman suburbs on the northern and eastern sides, a large soccer playing area on the south, and a cemetery on the west. The cemetery offers the least disruption to the wilderness ambience – for obvious reasons. Likewise, the soccer fields (that are south of a disc golf area) are most evident in their noise and field lights on days when games are being played.
The most serious disturbance to Sutton’s ambience comes from the eastern border – which is 12th Avenue Northeast (Sooner Road). The heavy commuter traffic between Norman and eastern Oklahoma City area during the rush hours, coupled with the relatively high speed of the traffic, produces high road noise that permeates much of the Sutton Wilderness. The fast traffic is the result of a lack of street lights between Rock Creek Rd and High Meadows Drive, and a speed limit of 45mph. (Road noise is strongly a function of speed – mostly due to tire noise.) Also, vehicles accelerating southward from the Rock Creek stoplight tend to make more noise.
The east-west traffic on Rock Creek Rd during rush hours is much less than on Sooner Rd, it has a lower (40 mph) speed limit, and most traffic is turning at Sooner Rd, requiring a slow down as Sooner is approached. All of these factors result in less road noise entering the Sutton Wilderness from Rock Creek Rd.
The traffic noise propagation into the Sutton Wilderness is apparent both winter and summer – the leaves of summer do not dramatically diminish the noise levels. A possible solution to this road noise would be a noise-abatement berm and wall. A combination berm (perhaps 5 ft?) together with a solid fence, perhaps 4 ft) on top of this berm might appreciably reduce the noise levels close to Sooner Rd. This would be costly, and for most current users of the wilderness (joggers, dog walkers) this may not affect their use of the wilderness.
Although minor by most standards, even the trail surface makes a difference in noise pollution. The new gravel surface on the top of the reworked Hospital Dam is much noisier than the plain dirt surface on either end of the dam. Simply walking on the gravel makes it difficult to hear birds, even on a calm Sunday morning. Almost certainly, this never crossed the minds of those reworking the top of the dam. It probably doesn’t occur to the vast majority of those walking across the dam – human-generated noise in today’s society is so omnipresent that many people will never experience an environment with only “natural” noise.
The wilderness, and indeed any part of Norman, is affected by light pollution, with street lights contributing the most. The Sutton Wilderness has a particularly acute source of light pollution on many nights – from the Griffen Park soccer fields to the south. These lights are high, and some are not particularly well shielded – as nearby residents can attest.